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As James Levine Steps Down, Thinking About Opera's Future

Apr 21, 2016

Levine, in the 40th year of his legendary career, has dealt with a number of health problems.

If you pay any attention to the music world, you already know that James Levine announced last week that he is stepping down as artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, an institution he has been associated with for 40 years.

 

He will continue to have an emeritus status, although what exactly that will mean is not entirely clear.

The reaction has been as tortuous and convoluted as an early Verdi libretto.

Given that he is struggling with a variety of health afflictions, and that he’s 72, the wording has been understandably careful.

But basically the message has been:

Maestro, thanks for giving us so many memorable evenings in the house and for lifting the level of the Met orchestra to world-class status and for helping to prepare a generation or two of young singers, and while you pretty much stayed very close to your wheelhouse of Verdi, Wagner and Mozart, and while it would have been nice if on your watch the Met could have seen its way clear to premiere more than a mere five new works in four decades, only two of which you personally conducted, and while, not to put too fine a point on it, it does seem as if you might have spared the company some needless angst had you decided to step aside a few seasons ago so that the wheels of succession could have begun to turn in a more orderly way, we understand that these things are complicated and we still recognize that you’re a great musician, even if you sometimes were as much of a diva as any poodle-cuddling soprano, and we tip our hats to you even as we worry that the institution and the artform that you presided over for all these years is in serious, serious, trouble.

Levine’s career illustrates what a strange profession music can be. He has been groomed for that profession since early childhood, and his professional path has been pretty much a straight, uninterrupted line.

If you were to have predicted where the 18-year-old Jimmy Levine, by then a Juilliard wunderkind, might wind up in life, you might well have said conducting at the Metropolitan Opera. And so he did, starting when he was still in his 20s.

 

 

But living life in rehearsal rooms and studios, on piano benches, and later on podiums and in stage pits, might make you a great craftsman but it doesn’t necessarily make you an interesting human being.

Levine has tended to be a reluctant interviewee, and probably for good reason: He really doesn’t have much original to say, about music or anything else.

I don’t mean that disparagingly. Levine is simply one of those practicing musicians -- and there are a lot of them -- who by training and temperament know how to speak through their art, but who are largely lost in the world of words.

Asked once about the state of orchestras, Levine said:

“As major orchestras around the world are gripped in various kinds of crises and upheaval, we need to be sure that we are bringing up this new generation.”

The Met's next artistic director must take the opera places Levine was unwilling, or unable, to go.

That might be a semi-acceptable utterance coming from the marketing director of a small-town arts council, but for the artistic  standard-bearer of one of the world’s great cultural institutions, it’s a little short on pith.

Somebody said the other day that, by virtue of his longstanding visibility and prominence within New York’s musical scene, Levine calls to mind Leonard Bernstein.

Hardly.

 

 

Bernstein was almost the opposite of Levine: a man who publicly careened in every possible musical direction -- writing hit shows one day, saving Mahler from obscurity the next, personally inventing a new way to do concerts for young people, expressing knowing admiration for “Penny Lane” and “Paint it, Black.”

 

 

By all accounts, Levine lives a carefully ordered, hermetic life, protected by his people, living at arm’s length even from most of his Met colleagues, famously unforthcoming about his personal life. His relationship to the music of his own time is, let us say, limited. And also eccentric. This is a man, remember, who cannot bring himself to form a relationship with Shostakovich.

Levine’s endomorphic body and finger-in-the-socket hair may be iconic enough, but you never saw the man (even when he was younger and healthier) hanging out at a Knicks game or checking out a young post-bop trio at Birdland. But leaving aside whether he is an authentic personality in the Lenny sense, as the Levine era comes to a close, my only real question in all of this is: what happens now?

Opera, not only at the Met, is facing precarious times. I know, I know -- here is a fistful of upbeat feature stories that show things aren’t all that bad. But let’s be real. This is a breathtakingly expensive art form. It is not the easiest art form to make a case for in a pluralistic, multicultural society. Its future is not assured.

The 2015-2016 Metropolitan Opera season.
Credit The Metropolitan Opera / Facebook

The classical music world generally worries -- perhaps a little unreasonably -- that it is in danger of becoming the province of dead white guys. But the opera world really is the province of dead white guys.

Operabase -- the nonprofit that tracks statistics from around the world -- compiles an annual list of the most-performed operas by professional companies large and small. The most recent season they have numbers for is a couple of years ago. It’s a startling list. Of the top 100 operas, how many were composed by dead white men?

Answer: Every last one of them. And not recently dead, either. Of the handful of 20th-century titles on the list, all are at least 50 years old. (Yes, “Dead Man Walking” and “Nixon in China” and “Little Women” and a few other contemporary pieces have raised hopes, but as this list shows, they have a really long way to go before they are truly members of the club.)

 

 

Is this situation, to use a word that modern arts bean counters love, sustainable? I realize opera has more issues to deal with than just adding new works to its hallowed repertoire. And maybe the Met is something of a special case -- more of a repository than a laboratory. But, to be as respectful as possible, when the next Met artistic director is named, he (or she -- don’t hold your breath, but that would be cool) will have to be prepared to take that brilliant Levine-trained orchestra, and all those Levine-trained young singers, and start to lead them to places that Levine himself was unwilling, or unable, to go.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.